Thursday, September 20, 2007

REVIEW: How To Be A Perfect Stranger: The Essential Religious Etiquette Handbook. Edited by Stuart M. Matlins and Arthur J. Magida

Published: 2006. Click on the cover to buy.
Publisher: SkyLight Paths Publishing

How To Be A Perfect Stranger: The Essential Religious Etiquette Handbook is, quite simply, probably the best hands-on reference I've ever seen on comparative religion. When I say hands-on, I mean that this is the book you turn to when you have to go to a wedding or a funeral at a church or other house of worship that is totally unfamiliar; it is the place to get answers to questions about holidays, services, proper attire and etiquette. It's not the place to go for detailed theology but for quick questions and practical advice, it's very useful stuff.

How To Be A Perfect Stranger is divided into 29 chapters, one for each religion it covers, and includes appendices covering holidays, a glossary of terms, the meaning of various symbols, and a summary of the correct forms of address for religious leaders of various faiths. The selection of religions profiled takes nothing for granted, covering every major faith you're likely to encounter in North America. The religions are sequenced alphabetically so there can be no accusation of bias by, for example, having Roman Catholic come before Protestant or somesuch.

Each chapter is divided into five sections: History and Beliefs; The Basic Service; Holy Days and Festivals; Life Cycle Events; and Home Celebrations. In each section, the same questions are asked and answered for every religion so the coverage is scrupulous and uniform. The only exception to this format is the chapter on Native American religions, which has some of the same divisions but the material is not presented in the same question-and-answer format. In the introduction, the editors explain this choice thusly:
"Because there is not a single Native American/First Nations faith, we found the standard question-and-answer fromat used in these chapters inadequate to properly explain the practices and spirituality of indigenous North American peoples. At the same time, their faith differs so basically from those religions in the Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions or from Hinduism or Buddhism that adhering to the standard format woudl have been more of a disservice than a virtue. For example, ceremonies and their content vary greatly among tribal groups and even native religions' basic concept of a Creator bears little relation to concepts of a Creator in most Western and Asian religions" (xvi)
It sounds to me like they're trying to say that they just tried to do the best summary-type treatment they could in the space they had. All of which indicates that if you're interested in learning the nitty-gritty of Native American religions this volume probably isn't the best source, but if you're looking for more of a broad-strokes treatment or quick introduction this book would be okay.

They get more detailed elsewhere, however. The information for the book comes from a questionnaire that was sent out to national representatives or clergy all over the country and then preliminary chapters sent back out for correction and comment. Therefore the information is probably pretty reliable. I did a quick web search and other reviewers seem to agree. How To Be A Perfect Stranger won the 2006 "Best Reference Book of the Year Award," from the Independent Book Publishers Association. It's well-deserved. Helpful, practical and hands-on, How To Be A Perfect Stranger is fun armchair reading and a great resource for home reference.